211 Is a Local Lifeline for Family Caregivers

Nancy LeaMond is AARP’s chief advocacy and engagement officer.

Family caregivers face challenges that may seem overwhelming. 

Loved ones leaving the hospital may require advanced at-home medical care. Ailing family members may need extra help to stay independent. Dealing with financial crises, locating providers that speak non-English languages, even just getting the right phone number – family caregivers tackle problems like these all the time.

But where can they go for help? The answers they need are often in the local community but obscured by a bureaucratic maze of agencies and programs that are often off-putting and hard to navigate.

This is why I want to tell you about an exciting pilot collaboration between AARP, United Way Worldwide and 211 that’s designed to deliver on the needs of family caregivers. The Caregiver Outreach Program is now expanding services for a growing list of local 211 networks – identifying family caregivers and matching them with critical resources to:

  • Address such basic necessities as housing, food and employment that take the focus off of caregiving.
  • Connect to services and organizations in the community, with guidance from someone who knows the community.
  • Simplify access to specialized help while anticipating changes in care situations in tandem with the caregiver.

By simply dialing 2-1-1, caregivers can get the answers they desperately seek. We view this initiative as a one-stop shop for finding essential services, including health care, food, and emergency financial aid. 211 is free to use and is delivered by over 220 local organizations across the country. Last year, these local experts fielded a total of 20 million requests for help on a range of issues. 

Caregivers who call the helpline benefit from AARP’s expertise in caregiving and from United Way and 211’s knowledge of local resources and programs.

Many callers welcome the opportunity for judgment-free listening and are heartened by the encouragement they get for their selfless – and often isolating – efforts. As one Florida caregiver told us: “This makes me feel less alone, for sure!” A caller in Pennsylvania was brought to tears by the supportive staffer who answered her 211 call: “No one has ever asked how I am doing,” she said with gratitude. 

Obtaining useful information should not be a source of stress or an exercise in frustration. Users of the service get the practical guidance they need to work their way through an alphabet soup of programs and agencies as they search for answers. Here are some of the most common needs raised by caregivers who have dialed 211: 

  • Resource identification and guidance. Many callers seek help with government benefits like Medicare, Medicaid, food assistance, and rent relief.  
  • Specific health needs. Many need information and resources for medical issues, including dementia, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and cancer. 
  • Support groups. Callers look for support groups that focus on self-help, grief management and loneliness.
  • Counseling. Many seek help finding ways to deal with shifting family dynamics, advice on how to cope and guidance on substance abuse. 
  • Veterans issues. Military families request aid in applying for veterans benefits, identifying and accessing services and navigating the VA system.
  • Home safety. Aging homeowners seek assistance with home modifications, fall prevention and home repairs.
  • Placement assistance. Caregivers may also need to know about care arrangements not fully realizable within the home, which may include assisted living, rehabilitation, palliative/hospice care, nursing homes and respite care.
  • Employment. Workers request guidance in finding jobs, training, and unemployment benefits.

The pilot, which started in seven markets (Pittsburgh, Central Michigan, Broward County, Palm Beach, Houston, Wisconsin and South Dakota), now covers almost 25 percent of the U.S. population. California, Arizona, North Carolina, Utah, Western New York and Akron joined this year, and now AARP, United Way Worldwide and 211 are looking at how to take this from a pilot to a national program.

Our country needs more affordable, accessible services to help family caregivers and individuals struggling to remain in their homes. But we also need to get the best possible use out of the resources that exist right now.

The growing use of 211 underscores how people need guidance and support in connecting with services already available in their communities. And it illustrates the many kinds of backup family caregivers need in undertaking an important, varied, and complex role that is really the backbone of long-term care in America.

Solutions that seem so elusive may be right outside a family caregiver’s door. The 211 Caregiver pilot is an example of putting crucial knowledge in the hands of those who need it. If you know someone who might benefit from dialing those three digits, please make them aware of this vital initiative, or visit 211.org for more information.

Learn more about the 211 program through the Federal Communications Commission .Or check out AARP’s local resource guides for family caregivers in every state. Be sure to also visit AARP’s Family Caregiving web page for other useful information.

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